Quantity vs. Quality: the purpose of NaNoWriMo

Me, typing fast to reach my 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo. (Yes, that's actually my novel open on the screen, though you can't read the text because the screen showed up too bright.)

Recently, I got an e-mail from my dad in which he asked a question about the NaNoWriMo word counts.

“Didn’t want to ‘disrespect’ your writing thing,” he wrote, “but do want to know….. what’s the point of how many words? In my way of thinking the objective is to get across the point or story and how many words that takes should be immaterial.”

My dad has a way of sometimes asking very sincere questions that force me to examine myself and what I do. This is one of those questions, and my dad is right. This is a fairly rare occurrence between any father and son, but honestly, I completely agree with him.

But it is precisely this concern with good storytelling and with quality writing that most often locks up my writing process. The myth of the writers block affects me, too.

This is why I love the month of November. It’s not at all the way I normally write, but it reminds me of the importance of writing first and revising later, the importance of producing what Anne Lamott calls the “shitty first draft.” In her chapter on the shitty first draft in Bird By Bird (which I’ve quoted elsewhere), she explains that “the first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. [. . .] Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.”

This sounds pretty simple, liberating even, but really, it’s a hard lesson to learn and an even harder lesson to put into practice. I second guess everything I write, every word that ever enters my head. Just this morning — and this is a true story — I spent 10 whole minutes mentally trying to rephrase a sentence, trying different punctuation and different word arrangements, working in my head to avoid misplaced modifiers and to most clearly and effectively convey my meaning. Ten whole minutes, and I never put anything on paper — it was all in my head. And the sentence wasn’t about my NaNoWriMo novel or about any of the short stories I’m not working on this month or the comments I was making on a friend’s short story draft or even an e-mail to a friend or a Facebook status update. It was a comment I thought about making regarding a news article I’d read online this morning. I never actually leave comments on news sites, and I realized halfway through my mental editing that the sentence I was trying to rearrange was never going to see the light of day, and still I kept trying to get the sentence right, just because it was there and I needed it to be great.

This is the kind of foolishness I engage in, and I know I’m not the only one. It is the worst kind of writers block, really, because it allows us the pretense of writing even while it prevents us from ever putting words on paper.

The purpose of NaNoWriMo is to push beyond that particularly nasty block, to write no matter what, to write so fast and so freely that we stop caring if it’s any good. Because, as Lamott says, “you can shape it later.”

On their site, the folks at NaNoWriMo express it like this:

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

Participating in this project last year taught me the very real value of this kind of experience, and in fact it has changed my approach to fiction. I write much more deliberately now, no longer always waiting for the “right” words to come and freeing myself to possibilities in my fiction that I wouldn’t have explored otherwise. Not long ago, in fact, I was pushing my way through a short story I’d been working on for ages and could never find the “right” story for; I decided to take the NaNoWriMo approach and simply commit to writing the thing, no matter where it went or what wound up happening. As I wrote, I actually surprised myself — I was writing so fast and so freely that even I didn’t know what was going to happen next in the story.  More than once, I said out loud, “Where did that come from?” Not all those surprises stayed in the story, but a lot of them did, and it was a more exciting and unpredictable story because of that.

My dad says that “the objective is to get across the point or story,” and he’s absolutely right. He says that the quantity of words it takes to tell that story or make that point is irrelevant. In the sense that the length should serve the story and not the other way around, he’s absolutely right. But every story has to start somewhere. Every story has to start with a shitty first draft. And if you can’t come up with a good story, writing a lot of words until you discover a good story is a great way to begin. That’s what NaNoWriMo is about. We write 50,000 words because somewhere in there, we hope, a good story hides. And if not, at least we had fun doing it.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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